Gillingham Ladies concluded a fantastic week in the club’s history with a resilient away display at FA Cup holders Arsenal in the fifth round of the competition.
The Gills record breaking run in the FA Cup was brought to an end courtesy of a coolly taken penalty and 30 yard strike from England’s all time record goal scorer Kelly Smith.
Arsenal welcomed Gills, the FA Women’s Premier League South leaders and Kent Women’s Cup champions and put out a full strength eleven to face the Kent side.
The opening exchanges were full of intensity as both teams looked to pass the ball around to create space and unlock attacking opportunities. As nerves began to settle, Arsenal relaxed into a very compelling attacking flow but Gills Ladies could not be broken with a disciplined defensive set up which successfully frustrated The Gunners.
The Gunners were limited to minimal clear cut chances, Christie Murray attempted a shot on target with a powerful half volley which was blocked by Gills centre back Deanna Cooper whist Faye Baker comfortably watched a Smith effort loop over the bar.
The Gills, marshalled by Captain Jay Blackie, kept a strict shape to constrain Arsenal who looked threatening with Rachel Yankey making several attempted runs down the left, closely monitored by Gills Ladies youngster Lauren Davis, whose energetic and hardworking display ensured The Gunners didn’t break the deadlock early.
Gillingham produced threatening moments of their own, demonstrating their patient passing style of football in front of the Boreham Wood crowd. Emma Tune, Lauren Phillips and Charlotte Gurr worked effectively to thread attacking movements together, often feeding the ball to Nikitta Whinnett and Lisa Fulgence, whose pace asked questions of the Arsenal defence.
Arsenal began to change their style of attack, testing Gills with balls over the top, but the Gills back four composed of Davis, Cooper, Amy Taylor and Fliss Gibbons exhibited different dimensions of their game to be solid and protect Baker from making many saves in the opening 20 minutes.
Arsenal’s clearest opportunity came through a Leah Williamson ball over the top. Ohno exploited her pace and timing to get one on one with Baker who did well to force the Arsenal player to lobbing her shot wide.
Gillingham Ladies forced The Gunners to a stalemate until half time. Frustrating their opponents with a disciplined defensive performance whilst interspersing the game with positive counter attacks.
Arsenal came out into the second half with great intensity, attacking the Gillingham goal as a unit. Gills were given the opportunity to test Arsenal with a set piece but Gurr’s free kick was handled competently by Siobhan Chamberlain.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 70th minute when Smith was brought down in the box, giving the referee very little choice but to point to penalty spot. Smith dusted herself down to step up and calmly slot the ball into the back of the net.
The goal didn’t dampen the Gills performance or credibility as they continued to battle hard to contain Arsenal and look to create attacking chances of their own. Whilst the demands of defending so heavily were beginning to take their toll, the Gills showed solidarity, desire and great team work to sustain the game’s tempo, making it an enjoyable contest for both sets of fans.
Arsenal looked to seal the game pushing bodies forward; internationals such as Casey Stoney, Yankey, Smith and Murray all had efforts blocked. The Gills stood firm and looked for rest bite through Fulgence and then Rachel Ahern who were running the line and reminding Arsenal of their threat.
Arsenal got their second with 10 minutes to go when Smith was found 30 yards out with time and space to pick out a spot and curl an effort over Baker, who’d kept the Gills in the tie with some brilliant saves throughout.
Arsenal wore the Gills down with their intensity but the game ended 2-0 with the Gillingham Ladies players making the county proud with a performance that wraps up a brilliant week for the club.
458 supporters turned up to the FA Cup tie, many of whom were Gills fans who made the journey to be part of a special and historic day for the club. They certainly were not disappointed.
Gills Ladies will be depending on their brilliant support again next Sunday as the exciting battle in the FA Southern Women’s Premier League continues, with the Gills welcoming rivals Cardiff City to Chatham Town FC for a topof the league clash.